JIM LEHRER: Now to our Newsmaker interview with Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser to President Bush. She joins us from the Old Executive Office Building. Dr. Rice, welcome.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Nice to be with you.
JIM LEHRER: Today's decision by the Israelis to let Yasser Arafat — I just reported it — to let Yasser Arafat leave his compound, is that an important development?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We do believe that this is a positive development. The situation on the ground has worsened considerably over the last several days, and we are sending General Zinni back to the region to try and get the Tenet implementation going so that the parties can get back to the peace table, and in that larger context we believe that the decision by Prime Minister Sharon recognizing that Chairman Arafat has made some important arrests is a good step forward.
JIM LEHRER: Now, when you say the Tenet proposal, that of course, is CIA Director George Tenet's proposal. Tell us in a nutshell what that is.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It's a security work plan, the Tenet Plan, that has a series of steps that would have the parties working for practical steps to bring down the level of violence, to cooperate and to meet certain standards along the way to make certain that everybody is making 100 percent effort to bring down the violence.
JIM LEHRER: It's not a peace plan, per se?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No.
JIM LEHRER: It's just one step to stop the killing.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: That's right. It's really an effort to improve the security situation so that we can get into the Mitchell Plan, which indeed is a blueprint for several steps leading to a comprehensive peace.
JIM LEHRER: Now, General Zinni is going to the area and so is Vice President Cheney. Should they be seen as both of them being part of a peace initiative or as one something and one another?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Vice President Cheney's trip to the region has been planned for some time, and it has a broader strategic mission of talking with a number of allies in the region about several strategic challenges that we face, including the second stage in the war on terrorism, talking about the problems of peace in the Middle East will be a part of it. But it's a very broad strategic look at the region.
The mission of General Zinni is really quite limited to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and he is going with a kind of renewed mandate to get quickly into the Tenet security work plan, and we expect him to work in the region, to work intensively with the parties, and indeed not to be derailed as Secretary Powell said yesterday, should there be new incidents. It's very important for people to understand that he is going to stay there for a while and try to get the parties into a better situation for talks on peace.
JIM LEHRER: Now he's tried that before and he had to come home. Is there any particular reason to be optimistic this time?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, we believe that conditions are a little bit better. First of all, even though the violence has worsened, we think there's a little bit of an opening made possible by the initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, recognizing that out of a peace of process there ought to be normalization of relations between the Arab world and the Israelis. We think that even though that is not a plan, per se, that it is an initiative that says that the moderate Arab states want to accept responsibility for being part of the solution and so we want to explore that opening.
As I also said, General Zinni is going with a mandate to implement Tenet, not just to shuttle back and forth between the parties, not to get known by them. He went in a kind of an introductory fashion a couple of times ago, but really to get down to the business of implementing the Tenet plan.
JIM LEHRER: As I'm sure you're aware people are increasing…people on the outside are increasingly saying that the hostility and the mistrust between the Israelis and the Palestinians is so severe that only the United States can take the steps that are necessary to, first, stop the violence, and then get something going toward peace. Do you and the president now accept that as a premise?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The United States has always accepted as a premise in this Administration has always accepted as the premise that the United States has a vital role to play in this region. From the very start, the president has been involved on a very intense basis. Secretary Powell is involved in the region almost daily, in phone calls to Chairman Arafat, to Prime Minister Sharon, to others in the region. And after all, we did put forward the Tenet work plan and really began the work of trying to implement Mitchell. So we've been very involved in the last 14 months.
What has changed here, we think, is a little opening in which our consultations with our moderate Arab friends - Saudi Arabia, Egypt - suggest that a concerted effort by the parties in the region and also with the European Union might be needed now to push forward a little bit what are some positive steps that the parties have taken.
You mentioned that Prime Minister Sharon has lifted the domestic travel ban on Chairman Arafat. Chairman Arafat did make the arrests. Prime Minister Sharon said that he was prepared to forego the seven days of continuous calm before beginning the Tenet implementation. So there is a lot stirring, and the president made the judgment that this is a time when General Zinni might be able to make a difference.
JIM LEHRER: As you know also, most immediate past presidents of the United States have truly gotten personally involved: bringing the parties to Washington, meeting them, taking them outside of Washington to meetings, et cetera. Has President Bush considered that?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: President Bush is prepared to be involved in any way that is likely to move the process forward. Now, he has had several of the Arab leaders here. He's had Prime Minister Sharon here a number of times. He talks frequently to them. And he is very involved on the phone, in personal meetings, in trying to push the process forward. We've not yet been in a position where the parties were ready to come together in a rather high-profile way because conditions on the ground have just not permitted it.
The important thing right now is to take a step by step process that gets us first into a better security situation — and we think the immediate implementation of Tenet can do that — and then can move us into the Mitchell Plan, which is, after all, a blueprint that both sides have agreed is the way forward. And so we believe we've got some tools, but the president is prepared to do whatever is necessary when he thinks that it can move the process forward.
JIM LEHRER: Now, back to the Cheney visit to the area. Taking action against Iraq is something he's going to be talking to these folks about, is that correct?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: He will certainly talk about Iraq, but I think that people need to get out of their minds the kind of image of Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney who went in the fall of 1990 in advance of imminent action against Iraq. President Bush has made no decision about the use of force against Iraq. The vice president will go there. He will consult with our allies and friends in the region.
Obviously, President Bush has put the world on notice that the status quo with Iraq is not acceptable. We have a country that continues to flaunt its international obligations undertaken in 1991 in the armistice, that continues to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction. After all, there is a reason that Saddam Hussein does not want weapons inspections in Iraq. It's…obviously he's got something to hide.
And this is a regime that continues to threaten its neighbors, threaten its own people and threaten world peace and stability. And so it isn't a situation that can continue forever. And the vice president will talk to our friends in the region about what we might do, but he is not carrying a decision by the president of the United States to use force against Iraq. That simply isn't the case.
JIM LEHRER: How seriously do you take these meetings last week at the U.N. between Iraq and the officials of the United Nations about readmitting inspectors into Iraq?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We need to be very clear on the purpose of weapons inspections. These are not inspections for inspections' sake. They are instrumental to make sure that Iran...that Iraq is not trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In fact they were supposed to be the ability to give testimony that there are no such programs.
And so when we focus on weapons inspections in Iraq, we have to focus on weapons inspections that would be effective enough to be sure that this man is not trying to do what we know he has tried to do over the last 20 years. Ultimately, the United States believes that regime change in Iraq is going to be best for the Iraqi people and for the region. But clearly weapons inspections that are tough, weapons inspections that cannot be challenged, weapons inspections in which Saddam Hussein is not trying to soften the edges of them would be a helpful step forward.
I have no idea whether Iraq was serious in its conversations with the Secretary-General, but I will note that the Iraqis, in a fashion that is typical, tried to put all kinds of other issues on the table instead of concentrating on their obligation not to have weapons of mass destruction.
JIM LEHRER: So you don't see that as any kind of hopeful sign that Iraq has had a change of heart.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We've been down this road before, and there is nothing in Iraq's past or present that suggests that they're serious about weapons inspections that would make clear that they have no weapons of mass destruction.
JIM LEHRER: Is it fair to say, Dr. Rice, that all of our major allies - at least those who have spoken publicly with a couple of exceptions - have come out loud and clear against military action against Iraq?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think it's not fair to say that our friends and allies have said that they're unequivocally opposed to any particular action against Iraq. What they said is they want us to be cautious, that they understand fully the threat that Iraq poses, and I want to be very clear that the United States has not said that the time has come for the use of force against Iraq. We're in a phase of consulting with our friends and allies.
What the president has made very clear is that the status quo is not acceptable. We cannot sweep under the rug what Iraq has been doing for the last ten years. We cannot pretend that this regime is one that can be trusted not to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is a problem that the world had better get serious about very soon.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, this weekend news about the U.S. working on contingency plans for possibly using nuclear weapons against seven countries including Iraq. Has the president in fact lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: If anything, this president has been a president who believes that a decreased reliance on nuclear weapons is warranted. After all, he is the one who has talked about missile defense to defend against these kinds of threats, especially the threat of potential weapons of mass destruction for rogue states.
He's the president who... and by the way the nuclear posturing view also says this: That because of our improved strategic relationship with Russia, we no longer face an imminent threat of nuclear war with Russia and can talk about reducing our offensive forces by up to two-thirds.
What this document does is what any military has to do, and that is, to review the contingencies, review the threats and look at the full range of options that the president needs to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its forces or its friends and allies.
Now, it has long been American policy that the use of a weapon of mass destruction against the United States, its friends or its forces, would be met with a devastating response. And the president cannot take any options out of his arsenal in making very clear the pledge that a use of weapon of mass destruction against us would be met with a devastating response. That is how you deter the use of one of these weapons against you.
But the idea that this somehow lowers the threshold for nuclear war couldn't be further from the truth. No one wants to use nuclear weapons, and this president has gone a long way to encouraging and to pressing the case for things like missile defense, which might make it unnecessary to worry so much about these weapons of mass destruction.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, Dr. Rice, we're going to go from you in a moment to a discussion about 9/11 and how it's changed America and Americans. How would you answer that question, from your perspective?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Clearly 9/11 changed the way that we think about our vulnerability. It was a shock to us, I think, that our own openness, the fact that we are a society that welcomes people into our midst and that we move openly and freely was used against us in the way that it was. We became very clear... it became very clear to us that we were not going to be able to remain invulnerable to attack as we had thought we were and that in this case the best defense is probably a good offense, that is, to go after these terrorists where they live.
It changed our concept of security, but fortunately it didn't change our sense of who we are. And, in fact, I think it really reinforced and strengthened our sense of who we are. We emerged from 9/11 stronger as one people. We emerged from 9/11 more cognizant and valuing more the freedoms and the values that we enjoy.
So as the president said on that very day, out of the horrible tears that we shed for those who lost their lives, for the wounded and maybe for the loss of innocence of America about its vulnerability, we gained a stronger sense of just how very strong the fabric of this society is.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Rice, thank you very much.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Thank you.